The man who brought his controversial jailhouse interviews with Jerry Sandusky to the Today show says he almost pulled the plug on the segment just before it aired.
“I didn’t like the parameters they were setting. Rules were changing as I was getting closer to the studio,” John Ziegler told The Daily Beast during a phone call from his hotel room at the Essex House in New York a few hours later. “They were putting me in an insanely restrictive situation about what I could say.”
Ziegler says that he had given the Today show considerable amounts of new information about what he found to be unfair circumstances surrounding the firing of Penn State’s iconic head football coach, Joe Paterno, and felt duped when instead the interview focused on Sandusky’s comments from behind bars. Ziegler had come on the program to tout his upcoming documentary Framing Paterno and its companion website, but he found himself hardly able to mention the conflicting evidence he claims will prove that Paterno was railroaded by the university.
NBC News, meanwhile, has been criticized for giving Ziegler a platform to say anything at all, despite the bonanza ratings potential. Gawker labeled the filmmaker a “Penn State truther.” Sexual-abuse advocates voiced their frustration at seeing Sandusky in the spotlight again. Even the family of the late Paterno, the man whose reputation Ziegler is out to redeem, called the interview “an insult to the victims and anyone who cares about the truth in this tragic story.”
An NBC spokesperson said the network stands by its reporting, which was "fair and accurate."
For Ziegler, the special sore spot relates to his revelations about Victim No. 2—the young boy allegedly seen in a shower engaged in a sex act with Sandusky in February 2001. That unidentified boy’s story was told to the Sandusky jury during the testimony of Mike McQueary, another PSU coach, who said he was an eyewitness to the crime. Ziegler said he thinks it is important to point out that Victim No. 2—who is now suing Penn State, Sandusky, and Sandusky’s former charity Second Mile—had written signed letters to the local newspaper in support of Jerry Sandusky and scolding the coach’s accusers. Further, this now-grown man acknowledged to detectives in September 2011 and then again in November of that year that he was the “shower boy” and insisted nothing sexual had ever happened between him and Coach Sandusky.
This is important stuff, according to Ziegler, because it was McQueary’s revelation about that boy and Paterno’s failure to do more in response to the report of sexual misconduct that formed the basis for the legendary coach’s termination in November 2011. It fits nicely into Ziegler’s theory that Paterno was made a scapegoat as the scandal grew.
Ziegler, 45, says he doesn’t blame Today host Matt Lauer for steering the interview in another direction, but he regrets that he wasn’t able to focus on the changing story of the “shower boy” and other information he says he has newly discovered.
“Once the [NBC] lawyers got involved everyone’s ass had to be covered,” he said. “In the short-attention-span theater in which we live, the segment had to include a statement from one of the victim’s lawyers, from Penn State, and a statement from the Paterno family. Half of the segment’s time was spent on butt-covering instead of talking about new elements of the story,” he said.
Ziegler is an interesting and verbally passionate character. He declined to give details of his film’s most important findings or more highlights of his Sandusky interviews, preferring to save those for the film. On his website he describes himself as an “author, broadcaster, commentator and filmmaker,” which seems like a lot of hats for one man to wear. He began as a TV sportscaster in Steubenville, Ohio, and Raleigh, N.C. He has long cultivated an animated and controversial persona and applied it on talk-radio programs in Nashville, Philadelphia, Louisville, Kentucky, and Los Angeles.
Ziegler has also written a book called The Death of Free Speech and has dedicated himself to criticizing mainstream-media coverage of everything from the aftermath of 9/11 to the candidacy of Sarah Palin. In fact, his documentary Media Malpractice: How Obama Got Elected and Palin Was Targeted, released in January 2009, was the catalyst for his introduction to the Today show and host Matt Lauer. Ziegler’s exclusive post-election interview with Palin, in which she lambasted the media coverage of her and spoke of being muzzled by the McCain campaign, hit the morning show’s radar like ratings manna from heaven. It was a lively and entertaining segment.
(As with many others from his past, the assertive Ziegler ultimately had a very public split with Palin. He now says they no longer communicate because ”I strongly feel that she has ‘sold out.’”)
When Ziegler sat down with Lauer to discuss his Sandusky interviews, the new information he had gleaned from them, and his upcoming Paterno documentary, he says he believed his viewpoint would get a fair hearing. But a rehash of a deceased coach’s firing is nothing compared to what a notorious convict says from behind bars. It’s the latter that makes for good TV and high ratings in the cutthroat marketplace of morning television—even if what Sandusky said isn’t new or newsworthy.
The hardest pill to swallow in the aftermath of the Today show interview, Ziegler said, was the Paterno family’s statement about his work. Written by the family’s attorney, it reads in part, “They feel it is important to make it clear that they had no role in obtaining or releasing this recording. Moreover, they believe that any attempt to use this recording as a defense of Joe Paterno is misguided and inappropriate.”
In fact, Ziegler tells The Daily Beast that after Paterno’s son Scott heard that he had been conducting prison interviews with Sandusky, he placed an expletive-laden phone call to Ziegler that lasted several minutes. The filmmaker says he was baffled at the virulent response. (Calls and emails for comment to Scott Paterno’s lawyer were not answered.)
“Since when is you interviewing someone an indication that you are teaming up with them or on their side? I got Sandusky to admit to things he’s never confessed to before. I brought him to tears with my questions,” Ziegler said, his voice rising as he spoke. Ziegler is puzzled by the family reaction, since he says he devised specific questions for Sandusky with the help of a former FBI pedophile profiler working with the Paternos.
“The notion that there is something wrong with interviewing the primary character in this Greek tragedy is beyond me,” he said.
To be sure, Ziegler’s appearance on the Today show didn’t reveal much of what he says is blockbuster information about Joe Paterno and Penn State’s culpability in the Sandusky scandal. At his Framing Paterno website he has posted almost nine minutes of his Sandusky interview and promises to release more information in the near future.
And if his next anticipated revelations don’t get the attention he feels they deserve, he’ll just have one more bone to pick with the media.